My melanoma story isn’t a recent one. It began several years ago. Long overdue, I’ve always understood the importance of sharing my experience. However, I have struggled so many times in writing this post that I actually began over two years ago. I’ve started, stopped, set aside, and started again.
For the past 21 years, I have told my story to anyone who would listen and sometimes to people who didn’t really care to hear it. Telling my story in writing, however, proves to be more difficult. While I have had several types of skin cancer, the deadliest one included, I still feel inadequately informed to talk about this silent killer. At 32, I was diagnosed with malignant melanoma, a cancer I thought was for “old people”. I had zero education about skin cancer, even though more people are diagnosed with skin cancer than all other cancers combined (in the US).
I hope my story helps at least one person. I’m an advocate for protecting skin now. Honestly, I can’t say I would be if I had not fallen victim to melanoma.
“I only tan on days ending with -y.”
I don’t remember being inside much growing up. During my elementary years, I spent every summer day I could at the swimming pool and weekends at the lake. In high school, my sun worshiping mirrored that of most girls in the 1980s. I slathered baby oil and iodine on my body, squeezed lemon juice in my hair, and baked in the sun for hours. Sometimes, I climbed on the roof of my house to get closer to the sun and laid on a reflective pad in order to get darker. I burned and peeled. Still, I never used sunscreen. For the winter months, I bought a sunlamp for my face and chest.
When I entered college, I no longer wasted my time sunbathing. I bought a package to a tanning salon and continued using tanning beds off and on for several more years. It’s no surprise, really, that at the age of 32, I was diagnosed with Stage I Malignant Melanoma.
It’s because my daughter Lexi was teased about a birthmark on her face and because my husband Randy is relentlessly persistent, that I even had a mole on my upper left hip checked out. Because of them, I am alive today.
Our middle child Lexi was born with a harmless birthmark on her cheek called a “Spider Angioma”. We called it “Lexi’s Angel’s Kiss”. At around 9 months old, Lexi’s birthmark changed from a bright red color to a more purple/pink color. By the age of 3, Lexi’s birthmark had faded considerably. No one in the family noticed it. Only she did.
“Taking care of yourself is part of taking care of your kids.”
During my pregnancy with Cale, I developed a mole on my upper left hip that continued to grow. Randy pressed me to see a dermatologist. I brushed him off, telling him mole changes were common during pregnancy. Once Cale was born in December 2000, the mole continued to evolve. Randy tried again to get me to schedule a doctor’s appointment. His concern did make me wary enough to look up pictures of suspicious moles. I convinced myself that mine was harmless. It wasn’t bigger than a pencil eraser. It wasn’t dark. I didn’t know of any family members who had skin cancer. I tanned easily. Besides, taking care of three kids was my priority, and seeing a doctor for myself was such an inconvenience.
One afternoon, the kids and I were in a department store shopping. I saw Lexi staring at herself in the mirror crying. When I scooped her up and asked her what was wrong, her response broke my heart. Some kids had told her that her birthmark wasn’t an “angel’s kiss” but a “devil’s kiss”. Nothing I said consoled her. She was 7 at the time.
Randy and I knew that laser treatment to remove Lexi’s birthmark was available, but we never considered it. She, on the other hand, begged us to get rid of what others had convinced her was a “devil’s kiss”. I scheduled Lexi an appointment to see the dermatologist. Randy made me call back and schedule myself an appointment as well. That appointment saved my life.
I truly believe that if Lexi had not stood in front of a mirror crying about kids teasing her, I would have put off seeing a dermatologist until it was too late. At that appointment, Lexi did one incredibly painful and unsuccessful laser treatment to remove her birthmark. We never scheduled a follow-up. Eventually, the birthmark faded on its own, but to this day, I believe her birthmark was an actual angel’s kiss.
As for me, the dermatologist removed my mole, noting it didn’t look suspicious. A few days later I got the dreaded call that the biopsy showed Stage I Malignant Melanoma which meant that the cancer cells were in both the first and second layers of the skin.
I remember looking up my prognosis on the Internet and discovering that Ronald Reagan’s daughter Maureen Reagan had recently died of Malignant Melanoma. She had battled the deadly skin cancer for five years. My initial thoughts were, “If they can’t save a former President’s daughter, then there is no hope for me.” I had lots of living to do. I was 32 at the time and convinced myself that I had maybe 5 years left. Thank goodness Casady, Lexi, and Cale kept me busy and focused on being a mom; otherwise, I would have allowed all the Internet information to consume me.
What followed that summer were lots more doctors’ appointments. Another deeper, larger incision cut around my first one would help ensure that the doctor removed all the cancer. MRIs and Cat Scans checked to see if the cancer had spread. I even had my eyes checked and learned that eye freckles can develop into melanoma.
“Some people appear in your life when you need them most. They love you and lift you up. Reminding you of the best. Even when you’re going through the worst. These people are not just friends. They are earth angels.” -Anna Taylor
One of my best friends was my earth angel and helped me through my difficult time, her name is Tina. Tina and I taught across the hall from one another and coached cheer together. Her son Cole and my daughter Lexi had been best buds since daycare. Just a few years earlier, Tina had battled breast cancer, undergoing a double mastectomy and chemotherapy. In spite of being told she would possibly lose fertility, she had recently had a baby girl just a year before I had Cale. Seeing her battle her cancer as a mom and wife at such a young age gave me hope that I could do the same if needed.
When I had to see an Oncologist, Tina said she would go with me. I will forever be grateful for that. She later shared with me how difficult it was for her to re-enter the Cancer Center. Having her with me that day and seeing others battling cancer humbled me in a way I will never be able to explain. I just knew I wanted to live.
“Life is a gift. The gift is good. The past is received into history. The future is full of positive possibilities. And you are free to live your life.” -Marie Dawson (My Aunt)
By the end of summer, all my results came back clear. Beyond grateful, I had an even greater appreciation for life. I also had an incessant desire to prove that I was strong. I rallied Tina and a few other teachers to begin training for a marathon with me. They were all young moms, too, with no previous marathon experience. We would pitch in for a babysitter after work, take off on our training runs, make it home in time to cook dinner, tend to the kids’ homework, tee ball games, bath time, etc., and the next day repeat the day over again…more exhausted than the day before.
With a few missing toenails, we completed our first marathon on April 28, 2002, the Oklahoma City Memorial Marathon. Pure relief and joy mixed with a little bit of pain, this photo of Tina and me at the end of the race will always be one of my favorites (my race time was 4:36:54). The other photo shows Tina and I (August 2020) at Cole’s wedding; our other longtime friend Angie also ran the marathon with us back in 2002. Angie taught alongside Tina and me as well, so I’ve shared many of life’s “bus rides” literally and figuratively with these gals.
“Lots of people want to ride with you in the limo. What you want is someone who will ride the bus with you when the limo breaks down.” -Oprah Winfrey
I don’t remember the details of my melanoma, like how many centimeters the incision was and the technical stuff that I think people want to know. That’s where I feel uneducated and unequipped to share my story and why I’ve been writing for so long. What I do remember vividly are the specific details that got me through my time of uncertainty: Randy and I holding each other and crying, family and friends praying with me, remembering how Tina had battled her Cancer with grace and knowing that I could do the same if necessary. All these memories make me so emotional still and make me hurt for anyone going through any kind of illness or diagnosis.
“We’re all terminal.” -Barbara Lambert
I want to share my story as a reminder to live each day fully. Twenty-one years after my malignant melanoma diagnosis, I understand even more that each day is a gift. Several years ago, Barbara, one of my co-workers and also a friend, lost her son tragically. A short time later, her husband passed away. Losing two loved ones so close together seemed unbearable. I always looked to Barbara for bits of wisdom, and I will never forget that in her time of grief she reminded everyone else to live: “We’re all terminal,” she would say, “so live!”.
I choose not to live in fear, but I feel apprehensive each time I have a dermatologist appointment. Full body checks aren’t the most comfortable, but I understand their importance. Throughout the years, I’ve had several moles removed. None of them malignant, thank God. Each new scar is a beautiful reminder that life is a gift.
My melanoma story didn’t make me not love the sun or keep me away from the beach or change my attitude in any of those ways. The only thing that changed is that I wear sunscreen religiously. By religiously, I mean every single day. I haven’t been in a tanning bed since my diagnosis. I tell others to put on sunscreen (and sometimes offer it to strangers). When I’m asked about my favorite sunscreen, I do have my preferences, but I tell others, “Whichever one you apply and reapply. That’s my favorite sunscreen!”
“Everybody knows how to love, but only few people know how to stay in love with the same person for a very long period of time.”
Randy’s still the guy in my ear getting me to do things that are necessary even when I don’t want to, and I make sure I return the favor for him. We continue to chase sunsets and find places to travel so we can check them off our list.
Today, you will either find me on a beach somewhere or dreaming about some place tropical. I will be wearing my sunscreen either way and thanking God for one more day.